Friday, November 02, 2007

Notes towards an egoless poetry 12: Changes

I wrote recently that I have been noticing a change in my creative output since I have gone through this past year of full-time caregiving, PTSD, my father's death, the aftermath, and the ongoing grief process. I don't desire to dwell on it, yet it is much on my mind, partly because I am noticing that the poetry I am writing since the life-changing events of the past two years has been like nothing I have written before—and partly because, without intending to, I have generated a great deal of controversy with this new poetry. These new poems, still few in number as I have not been able to write mmuch at all lately, are in forms and styles new to me, and though it all feels very organic, it's all very new. I am working without any roadmap, creatively. All the old maps are incomplete—or simply useless. I can't rely on the old maps: I can only grope forwards.

At the same time, I have been encouraged to hear, in conversations with other artists who have been through similar life-changing events in recent years, that this is not unusual. It has happened before, it will happen again. I claim no unique or special qualities. i am not alone, even, in noticing the changes.

It is something that happens naturally: you have changed, the way you make art will also change.

In contemplating these changes, I feel that the fact of them underlines the truth that we make art out of very inner selves—those of us to whom making art is as necessary as breathing. It reminds us that art-making is integral, core, an issue of central identity, is central to self.

Conversely, one cannot help but wonder if, when an artist goes through major life-changing experiences and their art does not change, that their art-making may not be as deeply integrated into their selves. This gets to motivation. There are, after all, artists who use their art-making to conceal themselves form the world—and from themselves. There are also artists who take pride in their art having no connection to themselves, but existing as an entirely non-organic, non-personality-based material. I hesitate to suggest that such artists might be working from a more superficial place, but I can't deny the possibility. I am not referring to the art that appears in states of egoless meditation or contemplation, or from the emptying of the self. I am referring, rather, to that art that is all about concealment, subterfuge, automatism, game-playing, and deceit—and there is a great deal of contemporary poetry that falls into all of those latter categories.

It's very hard, for example, not to view some of Jackson Mac Low's computer-language-based poetry generators as gimmicks rather than genuine inspirations. Mac Low famously worked with chance methods in text/poetry generation—but so did John Cage. Some of Mac Low's experiments are interesting to look at, but some of them parse out as simple tricks: once you solve the puzzle of how he generated the text, the "poem" becomes a dead thing with no life to it. It becomes a solved puzzle, to be set aside. It's hard not to view that kind of art-making process, used that way, as sleight-of-hand, or intellectual games theory, rather than as integral art-making. It is perfectly possible to use the same tools in the same ways as Mac Low used them, and generate something much more like a real poem, and much less like a puzzle-box. (Cage's mesostics stand as proof of that comparison.)

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between depth in creativity, and superficiality in art. (In my opinion, it also summarizes the difference between Cage's briliant inventive depths and Mac Low's usual gimmickry.)

If we are to pursue an egoless poetry, that doesn't mean a poetry that is devoid of life, of breath, of visceral engagement. It doesn't mean a poetry unconnected to experience or embodiment. It certainly doesn't imply that poetry should intellectual games with words—which is the main problem with most so-called Language Poetry: once you figure out the gimmick, the chase is over, and the interest wanes. Once you know the trick, it's hard to take the illusionist seriously.

At that point, any judgments about the quality of the artwork must come to depend entirely on what the artist does with the gimmick, and not at all about the "gee whiz!" factor of the gimmick itself. Far too many artists, including many "schools" of contemporary post-modern poetry don't understand that: they have remained too fascinated with the gimmick itself, as a tool, and have not graduated to making actual art by using the tool. By using the tool as just another tool in the tool-kit, neither more special nor inherently valid or valuable than any other tool in the tool-kit. To elevate any one tool above all others, except in a way that is personally relevant to the artist's individual process and style, is to confuse the tools with the creative act itself. Furthermore, this very levelling of value-judgments is the very root and method of post-modernism itself; thus, to claim to be a post-modern artist whose tools are better than everyone else's is to be inherently self-contradicting. It's impossible to take such absurd assertions seriously.

This mistake, in regarding the tool itself as inherently more valuable than other tools, is precisely what lies at the root of the continuous (and boring) argument between formalist poetry and more formally organic poetry, including free verse and its prosodic cousins. There are deep psychological motivations at the root of the continuous outcry against "chaos" and "formlessness," whenever such outcries occur, that are about insecurity and fear. In terms of poetry and egolessness, the ego is always the generator of fear of chaos, because what lies at the root of that is the ego's fear of its own dissolution, its own apparent death. It's quite amusing, at times, to read the heated rhetoric when formalists attack free verse: they have no coherently logical argument to make, because at root their argument is a moral one. This is why such arguments often quickly devolve to personal attacks, or attempts to shout down the opponent by sheer volume—these are the last refuges of rhetoric that has no real argument to stand on. (If they were honest enough to admit that their argument was moral prejudice, one could accept that; instead, they usually try to cloak their moral outrage with a facade of reason. It never works.

I am reminded, when I think about how artists can confuse the tools with the creative act itself, of those heady days in the early 1980s in popular music, when analog synthesizers with keyboards were first discovered by rock musicians. We got a great deal of "gee whiz! look what I can do!" music at that time—a lot of it very bad—and it took awhile before synthesizers became viewed as just one more available instrumental timbre among many others. When the glow of novelty had faded, and the "gee whiz!" factor had also faded, it was only then that genuine, original, good, profound music began to be made with synthesizers in pop music. The same process happened somewhat later with samplers. The same process is going on right now with software-synthesizers, and with all the new digital software compositional, audio recording and editing tools; tools that allow anyone sitting in their living room to compose, record, and release a complete album, entirely on their own, without the necessity or intervention of the recording industry. This is a process of the decentralizaion of the distribution channels: the same recording artists can also completely bypass the intermediaries, and sell directly to their audience, via the internet and similar technologies.

The music industry paradigm is, right now, changing, and the big record companies (those who pay the fees of the lawyers who work as lobbyists for the RIAA) are very upset about it. They exemplify the fear of dissolution and loss of control that the ego feels when it can no longer understand or direct everything that happens in life. The solid ground begins to liquify and move unpredictably, panic sets in, and desperation. That is precisely when people begin to lash out in fear and hatred. Xenophobia, fear of the Unknown, is always about fear of change, fear of the loss of known "truths," and, ultimately, fear of personal mortality. Most of the (neo-)conservative arguments in the arts reduce to simple "Change back!" messages: messages to return to some imagined golden age (that never was), when the rules were simple and clear, and everyone knew their place.

The way to get through big changes in life is not to grip ever more tightly to the old paradigms, the old ways of doing things. The way to survive these big life changes is to embrace them, to let go of any pretense of control, and surf the wave as it breaks, no matter where it goes.

An egoless poetry embraces fluidity and change, because it realizes that change is the only universal constant. An egoless poetry does not try to stop or control change.

This is why those loudest voices for purely formalist poetry exemplify inflated egos in their critiques of non-formal poetry. You can see it in their rhetoric and language. You can see that they have a big stake in forcing a particular outcome of the argument between formalist and non-formalist poetry. You can see that they care a very great deal that they are proved to be In The Right—and everyone else wrong. These are all signs and symptoms of ego inflation.

An egoless poetry deflates the personality-ego of the artist, rather than enhances it. An egoless poetry is not about continuously celebrating the self in these superficial, clever ways. It does not demand the death of the self. It merely requires the ego to retain its proper and necessary place in all things, and not let itself become more and more inflated by pride, prejudice, and fear.

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